Actor’s Express triumphed at the 14th annual Suzi Bass Awards on Monday night, walking off with a total of 11 awards, including top honors in both the musical and play categories. The ceremony, held at Oglethorpe University’s Conant Performing Arts Center, recognized outstanding achievements in 32 categories, from among the work of 23 participating metro Atlanta theater companies during the 2017-18 season.
The biggest winner of the evening was the Express’ “The Color Purple,” an emotionally uplifting musical version of the Alice Walker decades-spanning novel about a downtrodden Southern black woman overcoming adversity. In addition to being recognized as the best musical production of the season, the show scored five other Suzis: for lead actress Latrice Pace, director David Kote, supporting actress Kayce Grogan-Wallace, musical director Amanda Wansa Morgan and sound designer Angela Bryant.
The Express prevailed in the nonmusical categories, too. Garnering four awards, including outstanding production of a play, was its sweeping rendition of “Angels in America,” the two-part, seven-hour epic by Tony Kushner set during — and beyond — the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Express artistic director Freddie Ashley (who staged the first part) and Martin Damien Wilkins (who mounted the second) shared the director prize; their eight-member cast received best acting ensemble; and the drama also won for Joseph P. Monaghan’s lighting design.
In the third of his acceptance speeches of the night, Ashley acknowledged choosing to produce “The Color Purple” (with its predominantly black characters) and “Angels in America” (with its numerous gay characters) in specific response to the outcome of 2016 presidential election, and its polarizing repercussions.
On the eve of voting day in the 2018 midterm elections, it was just one of several politically tinged moments during the ceremony. Several winners urged the audience to exercise their right to vote. Lee Osorio, one of five white nominees in his category, accepted his Suzi for lead actor in a play for the Shakespeare Tavern’s “The Life and Death of Richard the Second” by delivering an impassioned plea about diversity and inclusion, essentially challenging every theater company in town to do a better job of reflecting the Atlanta community at large.
Among those taking home awards in other acting races: Enoch King and Carolyn Cook were named outstanding supporting actor and actress in a play, for the Express’ “The Christians” and Horizon’s “Citizens Market,” respectively; Robert Wayne nabbed supporting actor in a musical for Serenbe’s “Cabaret”; and Diany Rodriguez was cited as lead actress in a play for Aurora’s “Abigail/1702.”
Second to “The Color Purple” in the musical categories, the Aurora/Theatrical Outfit co-production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” earned four Suzis — notably Haden Rider’s for lead actor, as well as designing accolades for Shannon Robert’s scenery, Alan Yeong’s costumes and Maria Cristina Fuste’s lighting.
Two of the most memorable highlights of the evening were the Lifetime Achievement Awards bestowed upon local theater luminaries Liz Lee (introduced by Jon Ludwig), producer and resident lighting designer with the Center for Puppetry Arts, and Rosemary Newcott (introduced by Pearl Cleage), artistic director of the Alliance’s Theatre for Youth program.
Besides the songs performed from the shows nominated for best musical production, five other highlights this year were long-overdue scene excerpts from the outstanding play nominees. Talk about diversity and inclusion. Kudos to ceremony director Suehyla El-Attar for that addition to the mix — which practically deserves its very own Suzi Award.
Rounding out the 2017-18 winner’s circle:
Gene-Gabriel Moore Atlanta Playwriting Award: “Black Nerd” (Dad’s Garage) by Jon Carr.
World Premiere: “Sheltered” (Alliance) by Alix Sobler.
Acting Ensemble (Musical): “Always … Patsy Cline” (Atlanta Lyric).
Scenic Design (Play): Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, “Citizens Market” (Horizon Theatre).
Costume Design (Play): Elizabeth Rasmusson, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” (Theatrical Outfit).
Sound Design (Play): Marc Gwinn, “Abigail/1702” (Aurora Theatre).
Choreography: Cindy Mora Reiser, “Tarzan” (Atlanta Lyric).
Projection Design (Play): Bradley Bergeron, “Project Dawn” (Horizon).
Projection Design (Musical): Sven Ortel, “Candide” (Alliance).
Production (Theatre for Young Audiences): “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” (Synchronicity).
Direction (Theatre for Young Audiences): Amy Sweeney and Dolph Amick, “Mother Goose” (Center for Puppetry Arts).
Performance (Theatre for Young Audiences): The cast of “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.”
Design (Theatre for Young Audiences): “Winnie the Pooh” (Alliance).
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